God and the Tsunami
Responding With Hope in the Midst of Destruction.
In the wake of the tsunami that struck Asia on December 26, 2004, images of the resulting destruction have pervaded the media. Tableaus of bodies piled high and of empty beaches where villages once stood have been seared into our minds. The effects of the tsunami continue to ripple throughout the world. According to the New York Times, it is estimated that between 143,877 and 178,981 people have been killed; over 96,000 of those deaths have occurred in the Aceh province of Indonesia alone. The body count is only rising as dengue fever, malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases breed in now ubiquitous standing water. It is impossible not to grieve at such loss, and the outpouring of donations from governments and private citizens alike have demonstrated the depth of our commiseration and grief. The overwhelming magnitude of the catastrophe raises the question: why are such things are allowed to happen? If a loving and merciful God truly governs the world as Christians believe, why does he permit such suffering?
I’m not sure that this, ultimately, is an issue that we can ever fully understand with our minds—the true weight of suffering tugs at our hearts, making all intellectual attempts at understanding ring slightly hollow. The only way I can come close to understanding this issue, however, is with reference to human free will. I believe that God, in creating us, loved us enough to desire a true relationship with us, and so respected us enough to allow us to choose whether or not we want to enter into a relationship with him. He did this despite knowing that we would sin, which has separated us from him and allowed pain to come into the world. Somehow, in a way that we cannot fully understand, this pain includes the disruption of the natural order, in the form of pestilence, disease, and natural disasters like the tsunami. Though Christ has allowed us a means of redemption for entering into a relationship with God, we still sin, meaning that life in this world will never be perfect. Some people, including American Christians and Muslim clerics in the region, have made the argument that the tsunami is a judgment on the people of the affected region. I cannot accept this, at all—the notion that God “judged” the people of Asia in any way with this terrible disaster is, I believe, utterly incompatible with any idea of a loving God. So, in the end, even though such suffering in many ways remains beyond my understanding, I continue to look to Christ, who knows intimately the sufferings of mankind, because he has suffered them with us. Intellectual answers, in the end, pale before the cross of Christ, on which our Lord bore our sorrows. Even though I cannot fully understand suffering, I can take comfort in knowing that God—even God—suffers with us.
As difficult as this issue is, of course, we cannot simply struggle with it forever—tragedies on this scale demand not only reflection, but action. While continuing to mourn with the peoples of Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia at such a loss, I believe that we can also have hope —hope in Christ’s redemptive power. By keeping our faith and never ceasing to hope, we can boldly ask him to transform these regions and to use us as his instruments for good in the process. As Christians we are called not to give in to despair, because the foundation of our hope is Christ, who is not shaken by the troubles of this world, however large they might be. Instead, we are called to pray and to ask God how he would have us respond.
I believe that there will be some key challenges unique to Christians in the relief effort. Although surely we will fact logistical difficulties like providing quality health care, shelter, and services in regions where all such amenities have been wiped out and the general infrastructure is poor, a more subtle challenge will be to avoid focusing solely on working in the most efficient way possible (as we see it), instead being careful to give God room to work as he wills. While holding ourselves to high standards of relief work practices, it will also be essential that we pray intently about how God would have us work in this region. While keeping in mind the urgency that is necessary in this crisis, we must not allow it to make us act in a spirit of frenzy. Instead, we must temper our efforts with peace and confidence in the sovereignty of God.
Additionally, as Christians, we must always remember that those affected by the tsunami have more than merely physical needs; beyond that, those touched by such tragedy will undoubtedly be in need of emotional and spiritual guidance. As Christians, we can offer a comfort that is based in the Gospel; a solid foundation upon which people can truly rebuild their lives. The hope present in Christ, which is not based on the abundance or lack of material possessions, is something that possesses eternal value. However, we Christians must also be continually wary of taking advantage of the spiritual vulnerability of tsunami victims by forcing our faith upon them. If we mix the giving of material aid with proselytizing, people may profess Christianity merely to receive better aid. Thus, in these initial months especially, it is important for Christian relief workers to remain primarily relief workers who give on the basis of physical need and not of faith, thereby witnessing primarily through their love and actions, rather than directly attempting to convert those of other faith traditions. Discerning how to achieve this delicate balance is difficult, and will require much prayer, but in general I think the work of Christian relief agencies should be to provide aid and pray, and leave room for how God would desire to move in order to bring people to him.
Finally, it will be difficult to keep up the intensity of the relief efforts as time passes, donations taper off, and the attention of the public passes on to some other attraction or focus. In anticipating this inevitable waning of interest, we must first make the most of people’s current willingness to help, and to entreat the media to continue their coverage over the coming months and years, which will help remind people of the continuing damage. As Christians, we should distinguish ourselves by not ceasing to pray and by continuing physical donations and provision of medical care and other services. The tsunami has ravaged areas to a point where there is nothing remaining; the rebuilding process will take years. As we commit now to the ways that God would have us respond, we must make a continuing commitment to persevere and not abandon the people of Aceh or Sri Lanka to their own meager resources. This said, the relief efforts should truly be a partnership, in which people native to the region are allowed to take the lead, and we as foreigners, especially as Americans, humbly follow.
As we continue to pray and reach out to the people and regions affected by the tsunami, I believe that we can confidently wait in expectation to see God transform these areas, and also witness that in reaching out in faith to the people of South Asia and Eastern Africa, our own lives will be transformed. In partnering with God after such a terrible disaster, we will naturally grow in our faith as we see how God redeems even losses of such great magnitude, and gain perspective on how blessed our lives have been.
Meghan Buresh ‘08 is a Biochemistry concentrator in Lionel.